A conversation with 'Warrior Diplomat' Michael G. Waltz

Sometimes the right book comes along at just the right time – such is the case with Michael G. Waltz’s new book, "Warrior Diplomat" released this week. The title describes Waltz well – he served as a Green Beret in Afghanistan and returned to Washington to work for the National Security Council at the White House. "Warrior Diplomat" is about his experiences, which affected him personally and shaped his thinking on the current state of national security policy. All proceeds  from book go to two veteran's charities: The Green Beret Foundation and the SSG Matthew Pucino Foundation. I spoke recently with Waltz about the book and his experiences.

1. The difference between this book and ones previously written about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that you both worked on the policy and then you were in the field, implementing the tactics.  You say that immediately when you were on the ground in Afghanistan you recognized a problem that vexes government today - that so many in government tasked with making decisions have no firsthand experience of carrying out those orders. This is not a new problem, but is it even more important an issue today given the complex issues we face?

It’s one thing to be able to create a policy.  It’s another altogether to be able to execute it. Without a strategy that is executable and with sufficient resources behind it, our national security objectives are worth little more than the paper they are written on.  To that end, it is important that our key leaders have past operational expertise, so that they understand the immense challenges involved with implementing a strategy. In cases when on-the-ground experience doesn’t exist, our leaders must surround themselves with experienced hands, such as Ronald Reagan did. Reagan was a visionary and fantastic communicator, but lacked a military or diplomatic background. His solution was to surround himself with true professionals such as Colin Powell and George Schultz.


2. Afghanistan: One of your criticisms of the effort is the most important one -- that there was no overall strategy for what the United States and its allies wanted to achieve. But looking back, was there time to create a strategy that would have answered every question? Or was the race to attack the Taliban of paramount importance? It’s almost the opposite of the current over-analyzing of the United States’ strategy for dealing with ISIS. From your perspective, how do you avoid analysis paralysis and move to act before it is too late?

In the initial weeks and months after 9/11, America's goal was to destroy al Qaeda and the Taliban regime that harbored them, and to prevent another attack. Moving quickly was the right thing to do. However, once that phase of the war was complete and the U.S. settled in to what it thought would become a peacekeeping operation, its strategy didn't evolve quickly enough to prevent the Taliban's eventual resurgence.  When the United States finally did make a shift, it was reliant on NATO, which was incapable as an institution of implementing and resourcing a counterinsurgency strategy. Unfortunately, we had too many malfunctioning agencies and organizations, and risk-averse leaders, too. At one point, Jim Shinn, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia asked, “Who the hell thought to organize our war effort this way, the Taliban?”

The situation with ISIS has been evolving for several years, since the initial peaceful protests against Assad, during the Arab Spring.  This situation also could have benefitted from a quick response.  Iran and Russia saw the implications of the Syrian civil war spilling over to the region – Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and the Gulf – and immediately took action to protect their interests by supporting Assad.  We prevent analysis paralysis by having a clear-eyed view of American interests and being open to a range of options – covert, military, and diplomatic.  However, when the administration pre-determines to take strategic options off the table we find ourselves reacting to our enemies and competitors.  We then find that inaction can cost more in lives and treasure than timely action.

3. You write about how unprepared NATO is -- is that feeding into the problems today in coalescing around pushing back Russian President Vladimir Putin? And is NATO a lost cause, especially when looking at recent developments in Turkey where criticism of the government is set to become a crime?

NATO has tremendous value in a number of important ways to the United States and has been a success story in integrating Eastern Europe into the rest of the continent. As an organization, though, it will continue to struggle in facing asymmetrical threats. NATO has issues on two fronts—political will and military capability.

In the case of Afghanistan, there was a time lag between when NATO agreed to take on the ISAF mission and when they actually deployed forces to the more hostile areas. The European governments signed up for Bosnia-style peacekeeping in 2003 and by 2006 instead found itself in a violent counterinsurgency. It was problematic back in their home parliaments and as a result their armies were saddled with national caveats, heavily restricting what they could do. At the same time, NATO members had let their militaries atrophy over the years since the end of the Cold War. I saw this repeatedly on the ground. Good soldiers were hamstrung by poor equipment and leadership that was beholden to skeptical parliaments. This same problem exists today when dealing with issues from cyber-threats to Russian aggressiveness.

NATO was created for home defense against the Soviet Union and therefore had a singular mission politically and militarily. NATO requires unanimous consent in order to act and therefore does not fare well in reacting to the gray areas of irregular warfare, like President Putin is using so effectively today in Ukraine. Too many individual political considerations — like energy security and domestic politics—come into play in NATO decision-making and they prevent consensus. Further, expeditionary warfare, fighting while deployed for extended periods away from home bases is a task that is simply beyond the military capabilities of all but a handful of the NATO members.

NATO is not a lost cause by any means, but we should be wide eyed and realistic with ourselves about what types of things the Alliance is capable of accomplishing.   

4. Did you immediately know that President Obama’s decision to give a withdrawal date was disastrous? Do you think those concerns were adequately presented to the president?

The announcement of a withdrawal in the midst of an escalation was one of the most significant strategic blunders of this war.

Two weeks after President Obama's 2009 speech at West Point, where he announced the surge of U.S. forces into Afghanistan, but then also announced its withdrawal date, I met with a key tribal elder in eastern Afghanistan, whom I had been courting for support for months.  He informed me that he could no longer offer support to the United States because our president's speech had confirmed his worst fears, that he would put his family and tribe at risk and America would abandon them.  

Though I tried to convince him that it was only a withdrawal of the surge and not all U.S. forces, the nuance was lost on him. In his words “Until you are prepared to have your grandchildren stand shoulder to shoulder with my grandchildren, I cannot support you. A few years is nothing in this part of the world." One of my soldiers said it was akin to FDR announcing D-Day but also putting a timeline on how long we would fight. We began see other effects such as a surge in corruption under the premise of ‘take what you can while you can' as well as a flight of capital and human talent. The announcement sent a powerful and hugely detrimental message.

My understanding is that the concerns about announcing arbitrary timelines were presented to the president during the fall of 2009 Afghanistan strategy review, but that the withdrawal timeline was a compromise position between domestic political considerations and what the military advised was needed to achieve our goals. We essentially pulled the rug out from under the potentially-positive effects of the surge before it even began.

5. You predict that without a change in strategy and direction that Afghanistan will be in a civil war and that Al Qaeda will be resurgent in the region. Is there anything that we could do in the next two years to prevent that?

The administration's current plan is to cut our remaining forces of 9,800 in half by the end of 2015 and then execute a full withdrawal by the end of 2016. The "zero option" is a dangerous mistake and announcing it years in advance has the entire region hedging against us rather than working with us.

The minority ethnic groups in the north are reorganizing and preparing for a resurgent Taliban coming from the Pashtun east and south. Politically, the path forward for the power-sharing government is fragile and fraught with danger. Al Qaeda can and will reconstitute in the wake of the American withdrawal along the lawless tribal border regions of Afghanistan-Pakistan.

The Afghan National Army is capable, but will need support for the foreseeable future. At a minimum, we must keep our elite Special Forces units in place to continue pressuring al Qaeda and Taliban leadership. If they are afraid to sleep at night, it is very difficult to plot attacks against the American homeland or the Kabul government. We should also maintain a sustainable level of U.S. advisors in place to bolster and continue to develop the Afghan National Army and Police until they truly are ready to operate independently.
6. Is Afghanistan a hopeless cause, or did you see potential for real change?

I end my book by telling the story of a small impoverished country in Asia that was completely devastated after several decades of war and brutal occupation. There was no political system, no real government services, little infrastructure, no army, and a poor agrarian economy. Sound familiar?

Sixty-five years ago that country was South Korea. It actually had a higher illiteracy rate than Afghanistan has today. Yet in the mid-1950s, President Eisenhower decided that sustained engagement on the Korean peninsula was in our national interest. It took leadership to convince a war-weary public that defeating the ideology of communism in Asia was worth the costs. There are important differences between the two countries to be sure, but the success story of South Korea is a powerful example of what long-term strategic engagement by the United States and the potential for real change in Afghanistan. The key ingredient is time and the need for our leadership to take a long view in our policies.

7. Does the fate of Afghanistan still matter? And how do you convince Americans that it matters to them?

It is easy to describe the massive difficulties in such an impoverished country as Afghanistan and lament the massive American expenditures, inefficiencies, and mistakes made over the last decade.  But that doesn't mean we should leave.  

None of the advocates of the withdrawal can explain to me what we do if their assumptions are wrong and Afghanistan again descends into chaos and becomes a haven for terrorist groups as northern Iraq has today.  

If the world is afraid of a group like ISIS threatening Baghdad, how will we feel if the city contained the keys to a nuclear arsenal as does the capitol of Pakistan? That should convince any American. But we desperately need the president to explain to the American people what's at stake.

8. Your affection and admiration for your fellow soldiers is impressive. You give them a great tribute. What do you think the parents of these heroes did when they were little kids to instill their courage, bravery and patriotism?

Much of it comes from the influence of family and seeing the rest of the world appreciate America. I found that many soldiers have public servants among their parents and grandparents — military, police, civil service, etc.  They grow up instilled with a sense of service and duty through the most powerful means —the example of generations before them. Many also traveled abroad in their youth. You cannot fully appreciate all that we have here in America until you see how the rest of world lives. Only then can you truly appreciate our freedoms and wealth.

For me personally, the story of my mother has exemplified the American dream and inspired me to serve. Struggling as a high school educated, single mother working three jobs, she slept between the hours of 6-10 am and educated herself over 15 years of night school.  We lived on food stamps, but she eventually rose to retire as an executive of Prudential Insurance Company.

That kind of work ethic and drive made a huge impression on me—that the sky's the limit if hard work and dogged determination are at play. I also realized that women like my mother blazed a trail for little girls like my daughter, too.  That's worth protecting.

9. In the opening scene in the book, you lead a raid that leads to the accidental killing of an innocent little girl. And then there’s a photograph of a little girl who you said pushed her way to the front of the line so that she could go to school. Do you realize just how much you changed the lives of those girls, just by being there and showing them they have self-determination and a chance to dream, even if it’s just a little bit?

Girls’ education and women's empowerment is more than a feel-good humanitarian issue.  It's a national security issue that needs to be taken more seriously. Educating the rising generation of girls unstable countries will give them the tools to resist the oppression espoused by extremist groups like the Taliban, ISIS, al Qaeda and Boko Haram. Extremism preys on ignorance and education will undermine its very foundation.

We need to support the future female leaders of the world with all we can. In Afghanistan, I was admittedly biased as the single dad of a little girl, and supported every girls' school I could. I will never forget the determination of that girl that fought her way to the front of a mob of boys waiting on school supplies. I happen to capture the moment in a photo that’s in the book. Young women like her are the future of that country and by extension, critical to our national security.

10. I love your acronyms chart at the beginning of the book. -- I used to have one when I worked at Justice Department and the Council on Environmental Quality. Do you have any particular favorites?

Easy. When the chips are down and it's us or the bad guys, I want to look up and see the acronym USAF painted on a wing flying overhead (U.S. Air Force)!

11.   You spent several chapters of the book discussing your missions in Afghanistan while embedded with Special Forces from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  We are currently in an Arab coalition in the fight against ISIS.   What was it like to be with an allied Arab force in the ground?

I found that non-Arab Muslims like the Afghans held the Arabs in special regard. So an Arab military officer explaining the benefits of the American presence in Afghanistan to groups of villagers (citing the rebuilding of Germany and Japan) came with a fantastic amount of credibility.  At the same time they would undermine the Taliban's rhetoric from a religious and ideological perspective that and American could never do.  They cited the success stories of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Jakarta, and Istanbul in pointing out that al Qaeda and the Taliban’s version of Islam was not the way forward to a better life for their children.  It’s going to take the same type of strategic messaging to defeat the extreme and violent appeal of ISIS to Muslim youth.  I’m proud (and not surprised) to see the UAE stepping forward to a leading role in this fight.

12.  It seems like we are regressing in our fight against terrorism and that they are stronger now than years ago – from Syria to Libya to Yemen.  Where is this all going?  

We are at war against an ideology – Islamic extremism – that seeks to harm Western values and our way of life.   Ignoring the problem and wishing it away has only allowed the problem to fester.  Much like the Cold War and the effort to defeat the ideology of Communism -- defeating an idea will be a generational effort. Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen are various battlefields in this long term effort. Afghanistan has been labeled as the longest war in American history.  In reality we are a little more than ten years into a long war that will likely take decades.